Name: Chelsea Lupkin
Claim to fame: Filmmaker of short films whose credits include Uncovering Eden and Sophie Learns to Swim
Wise words: "The coolest filmmakers or creators are the ones who don’t give a shit about anyone else and make things that they want to make."
If you're anything like me, you consume what feels like an immeasurable amount of media every month. I devour countless articles, podcasts, videos, TV shows, movies, and essays, most of which fade from memory a short while later. But some stick around a little longer, lingering in the layer below your daily thoughts, the lessons they taught you or the emotions that they made you feel still being processed somewhere in the back of your mind.
Such was my experience with filmmaker Chelsea Lupkin's latest short film, Uncovering Eden, which featured one of the most shocking and thought-provoking endings that I've seen in recent years. Eager to learn more about the mind -- and the heart -- behind this incredible piece of art, I got busy Google-ing Chelsea and her work.
The woman I got to know through my search was a multi-talented director, filmmaker, and performer whose creative success has been fuelled by tenacity and an unwavering commitment to bringing her artistic vision to life. Oh, and as if making her own films wasn't impressive enough, she also works as a shooter for MTV.
I caught up with Chelsea earlier this month to talk about film, creative ambition, and how running a Kickstarter campaign can be a terrifying exercise in vulnerability.
On fast cars and being a woman in film
“I’m actually a failed painter,” she laughed, “in fact, there were multiple times when fellow art students took me out for drinks because I was so bad at everything in studio.”
So how does one go from self-described “failed painter” to an emerging filmmaker in the span of a few years? Drifting, of course. (Yes, the thing with the fast cars.)
One day, Chelsea's boyfriend invited her to check out Club Loose, a drifting community that he was a part of, but she wasn't exactly eager, “I thought drifting was dumb,” she confessed. “A few years later, he demanded that I ‘take this camera and start shooting’ and to ‘Just go!’ The video I made from that was my first short film,” she recounted, “it turned out a lot better than I thought it would.”
Although she doesn’t take part in any of the actual driving, being part of the community has connected Chelsea to people who have played a central role in her career -- including a contact who helped her get her foot in the door at MTV last winter. She noted that the filmmakers, photographers and drivers are all very supportive toward one and another. However, the media on the track are still predominately male and Chelsea isn’t exactly surprised, given some of her experiences in the entertainment industry.
“I’ve been on professional sets, camera in hand and a guy will come up to me and ‘show me something new’ as if I don’t know how to use a camera and equally go up to a male camera operator and ask for his ideas and opinions about whatever he is shooting with.” She admitted that these attitudes can take their toll after a while: “I’ve always wanted to work in the film industry, but I counted out the camera stuff early on because I didn’t have a ‘technical mind’ partly because some men don’t really encourage women to be technical.”
These days Chelsea is in good company at MTV, where she said there are quite a few women working on all elements of production. But she still notices that when she’s out on the red carpet, shoulder-to-shoulder with major media outlets, people still comment with an air of surprise about how great it is to see a woman shooting. “It’s sad,” she lamented, “but it works to my advantage to be a novelty.”
On the terrifying vulnerability of running a Kickstarter campaign
“I kept convincing myself that I couldn’t make a movie by myself because I didn’t know people who could help” she explained, reflecting back on the challenging first few months of 2013, before she launched the Kickstarter campaign for Uncovering Eden. “It was February and I was really depressed -- freelance work was irregular and I didn’t have the money to pay my bills” she shared, “and I knew that if I wanted to finance a film, I had to go big.”
Frustrated by the amount of time it would take to apply for and then receive a traditional film grant, Chelsea turned to the fundraising behemoth known as Kickstarter. “I chose Kickstarter because of the publicity and the fact that it has its own social presence, there was more risk but a better reward,” she shared, laughing a little, “it was definitely the ballsier choice.”
Chelsea’s bold choice ultimately paid off: 142 backers contributed $9225, more than a thousand dollars above her original goal of $8000. While she can now look back on that experience with the satisfaction of a job well done, Chelsea still recalls how stressful the process was. On top of the many hours spent updating backers, creating rewards, and managing campaign publicity, fundraisers also need to do the challenging emotional work of putting yourself and your creative vision on display for the world to see.
It was an exercise in vulnerability unlike anything Chelsea had previously experienced. “That was probably the scariest thing I have ever done in my life,” she admitted, “not just because raising money is a 24 hour job, but also because are selling you and that’s the one thing that I think a lot of filmmakers on that site forget.” She also pointed to the fact that, on Kickstarter, funding is all-or-nothing, meaning that if a project doesn’t reach its goal, the creator receives absolutely nothing. “The thing that makes it terrifying,” Chelsea explained, “is that if you fail you fail publicly and you don’t get to make anything.”
On getting the job done, even when it all goes very wrong
“Everybody I talked to that watched it has felt all the things [while watching Uncovering Eden],” Chelsea said. Having seen the film and having had my own very strong reaction to the story, I was not at all surprised to hear that. Although Uncovering Eden is a short film, it manages to find the time to explore significant social issues like bullying and discrimination in a meaningful and thought-provoking way.
The film’s portrayal of a young Jewish girl’s experience with anti-semitic bullying is so compelling and convincing that one can only conclude that the creator behind the art has a personal awareness of her character’s struggle. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Although the film is not auto-biographical, Chelsea is no stranger to the issues being confronted in Uncovering Eden: “when Jewish people get discriminated against, it’s not really taken that seriously, for example, I was told that I was cheap all the time growing up,” she shared, “there are so many micro-aggressions that I just felt like I might as well shine some light on it.” This is because there are actually minorities of minorities.
Chelsea admits to having been afraid at first to write on the topic, concerned about hitting nerves among the people who weren’t so nice to her growing up. “That’s when I knew I had to write about it – because I was still upset and afraid of what they would think.” Within a month she had developed the idea for the film, and a month later she had written the screenplay.
But it wasn’t automatically smooth sailing from that point on. The film’s intense subject matter and dark ending made some people hesitant to support the project, including some that Chelsea had assumed would be enthusiastically on board. “I needed a classroom location and didn’t get one until the last week of my Kickstarter,” she told me, “we got turned down my 25 school districts -- not just individual schools -- for a film about anti-bullying.” As disappointing as it was, Chelsea was already well aware of the fact that bringing your artistic vision to life will sometimes always require a little creative maneuvering.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Chelsea what she was most proud of. The pretext to her answer made me laugh out loud, but I think this particular point of pride is something that many of us share. “You might want to vomit when I say this,” she warned me, “but I’m most proud of how I’ve been handling failure.” She noted that film, in particular, is field where things are bound to go wrong eventually: “whether it’s the struggles of trying to make things on a tight budget, or tech fails, or you don’t get into a bunch of film festivals because you’re film isn’t an easy fit in the program, you have to be able to recognize when something didn’t work and be willing to try another way.”
Part of the reason that Chelsea has been able to make those quick pivots and turn bad luck around is that she has done the work of surrounding herself with other creatives who can help her bring her vision to life. “I’ve taken on the responsibility of being ring leader and creator [in my circle],” she explained, “so people are now coming to me asking ‘what are we doing next?’ and that’s important to succeed.”
“When you let go and trust someone else you can make some cool shit.”
To build that team, Chelsea has had to make some tough calls, including firing someone from a project who wasn’t working out. Her advice to other creatives looking to build a strong support team? Don’t settle for anything less than the right fit. “The whole reason why passion projects work out is that everyone wants to be there, loves each other, and supports each other.”
On ‘doing you’ (no matter what anyone else wants)
If you’re not already digging Chelsea and her work, I guarantee you will after you hear her answer to the one question I ask at the end of every interview: “what’s next?”
“Making more things that I like to make,” she said, simply and directly. “I’m just going to work on whatever I damn well want to work on, whatever genre or story I’m feeling at the moment, I’m going to make it. I’m not locked into anything.” Listening to her speak, you can tell that what she is saying is completely genuine -- no false bravado here. Chelsea is a woman who knows what she wants and doesn’t want to waste anytime in getting it.
“The coolest filmmakers or creators are the ones who don’t give a shit about anyone else and make things that they want to make. I don’t want people to force me to make anything I don’t feel passionate about.”
Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Watch Chelsea's films here.
Credit for cover image of Chelsea: Kendall Whitehouse